They say you only live once, yet that rule does not apply for cats. Can you imagine having nine lives? Nine different strokes at life, nine do-overs, nine spiritual successions? Well, if you play Night in the Woods, you may feel a little more closely aligned with the four legged fur balls that demand our attention, as it will ultimately serve as a second life that you get to experience. In small town Possum Springs, all that’s left to hold onto is the comfort of familiarity, and hope. Players take hold of Mae Borowski, a 20 year old recent college dropout, as she returns home to Possum Springs. College was not for her, but she is not really sure what IS for her either. Mae is at the weird crossroad in every brooding adult’s life where our choices may define our future, but she would rather walk right between the roads and see what lies ahead.
Night in the Woods is a narrative driven 2D adventure packed with dialogue trees, exploration, and engaging interactions. It is also what I would like to call a “Cat-former”, as Mae is of feline decent. All inhabitants of Possum Springs are animals, albeit humanoid ones. They eat, sleep, work, love, and do everything else like the rest of us in the real world. But being a cat adds that special something to Mae, like the ability to jump rather high, as well as travel along wires. This game is very special and unique, and cannot be contained to typical standards. It does not have action in the sense that a Mario or Megaman game does, but nor is it limited to speaking and moving like that of the ever popular “walking simulator” titles. It is more like taking aspects of Sims like daily interactions and living day to day life and adding that into Oxenfree’s core structure. I don’t hold Night in the Woods against these titles, but figure the comparisons the best way to inform of what to expect out of it.
Night in the Woods is like watching a good book, or reading your favorite show. That’s right, the narrative is so heartfelt and immersive that it transcends descriptive norms. In the two years that Mae has been gone, Possum Springs has changed. People are gone and so are some local shops, while others have moved in or moved on. You play Night in the Woods day to day, moving the narrative along while exploring friendships, experiencing strange occurrences, shoplifting, feeding baby rats, and even going to band practice. Each day has a main interaction that needs to be achieved, like hanging out with a particular character or going to band practice, but outside of that there is so much freedom. Who you hang out with, where you go, and how you engage with others is almost entirely up to you. Had I only focused on Key interactions, I probably would have beaten the game in under ten hours. Instead, I spent a whopping 19 hours exploring Possum Springs in and out and I still missed a significant chunk of opportunities (as documented by Mae’s notebook).
The town and all that inhabit it are just so inviting, it was hard not to stretch my game time out. I did not want to miss a single piece of dialogue because the game as a whole is so well written, it would be a shame to ignore what the townsfolk had to say. Whether it was funny, bittersweet, sad, or just too close to home, the games narrative offers a lot of relatable looks at real life and how we and others go about it. Even in the games sometimes monotonous routines, it callbacks to the fact that life and all its routines can sometimes feel like a drag (making the game best played in short bursts in my opinion.) I am just stunned that a game that revolves around animals feels so much more human than anything I have played in quite some time. The characters are so damn great that it is hard not to love them. Gregg, the rambunctious best friend, Bea, the friend forced into maturity, Angus, Greggs polar opposite boyfriend, and Germ, the odd one out who fits right in round off all of Mae’s closest friends. But even the townspeople stand out. Your neighbor Casey is always writing new poems, which you can listen to each new day. Mr. Chazokov invites you onto his roof every other day to stargaze. Your parents are always there for you, night and day, to chat and progress the relationships (making me miss my mom even more than I already do.) Even the characters who you see doing their daily routines but don’t interact with are wholly memorable; like the bar patrons who always cheer for their favorite team together but don’t divulge into personal matters, or the ever vigilant town committee whose goal is to see to it that Possum Spring is a booming place.
But the town isn’t booming sadly. Its old bread and butter, so to speak, was the mining industry, which died years ago. This kept people employed and putting food on the table, and now many of the townsfolks have to settle for whatever opportunities they can take. It’s a tale that’s true to many cities across the US. My hometown that I still reside in used to be a bustling area for the steel industry, but over the course of my childhood, things got worse and worse. It was not uncommon to hear that a friend’s dad or a family member was laid off. Now most of the industry is gone in the area, and like Possum Springs, our town hangs on to what bit of hope it can, while its people are forced to look for work elsewhere. Not to mention the strange things that are afoot, both within the town and within Mae’s psyche, but that is for the players to unravel so I will leave it at that.
When things aren’t all gloomy and somber, you will find yourself occupying the time in various fun ways (while never filling out any job applications, to your parent’s disapproval.) Aside from stargazing, there are a variety of interactive segments that allow you to explore gameplay outside of running and jumping. Whether it is shoplifting for fun (or pocketing fresh pretzels to feed baby rats), playing bass in a Guitar Hero like mini-game, or even booting up Demon Tower on Mae’s laptop (a unique, standalone dungeon crawler game), there is more to this game than face value. These interactions break up the norm and add a great sense of in-the-moment fun to the overall experience. I loved smashing lightbulbs with Gregg behind the building he works at, or dancing at a party with Bea (Mae has some sweet moves.)
All of this is explored and engaged in while being presented in such a slick aesthetic. I almost wish Night in the Woods was a cartoon series and not a game, so I could keep up with the gang while sitting back and just watching it. The animations are so stellar. I spent a lot of time jumping just to appreciate the motions at hand, and the appreciation only furthered in the more emotional or exhausting segments where you get to see their faces do the “talking” as opposed to the text. The colors are vibrant yet subtle, effortlessly nailing the fall season. Minute details in each character add to their humanity, while their physical appearance makes them still adorable animals worth loving. The music is just as good. I am hoping for a vinyl record of this OST, because it’s a well-balanced set lists the tunes in on the mood of every moment. Whether it be waking up to that early morning sunshine, having a walk across town, or being chased by the unknown, there is music for every moment and it fits the bill each time.
I think it’s fair to say that not only is the music balanced, but the game as a whole is. It takes a lot of sub-context into question, and like everything else, it comes off so naturally. Good vs Evil, Life vs Death, Tacos vs Pizza, all of life’s hard questions are brought up and explored within the realm of realism, while also tackling adulthood, mental issues, and our places in society. Life is not easy, and this game doesn’t make it out to be, but rather explores how most of us press on regardless of our obstacles and make due where we can. This game is the story of a cat’s coming of age, yet it’s totally relatable on multiple fronts for a variety of players. Change is inevitable, but stagnate comfort is home. Night in the Woods became a second home to me during my time with it, and there is nothing I would change about it. It’s a love letter to life, and a fantastic work of art that effortlessly explores human interaction in a brilliant way.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 9.5
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